CHICAGO -- NATO leaders have convened in Chicago for a two-day summit that is expected to be dominated by discussion of a military withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The aim of the summit is to agree on a common stance as the alliance prepares to hand over security duties to Afghan forces at the end of 2014, leaving NATO in a strictly advisory role.
More than 50 world leaders are participating amid heavy security in Chicago for the first-ever NATO summit in the United States held anywhere but Washington.
Participants include heads of state and government from the 28 NATO countries as well as Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his Pakistani counterpart, Asif Ali Zardari.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, speaking at a morning news conference, said NATO is strongly committed to the mission in Afghanistan, adding that "there will be no rush for the exit."
"The clear message from this summit will be that we stay committed to our operation in Afghanistan, that we will continue to transfer, to hand over lead responsibility to the Afghans according to the plan we have laid out already when we met in Lisbon in 2010," Rasmussen said.
Planning An Exit
Leaders hope to end the summit with agreement on a common stance as the alliance prepares to hand over security duties to Afghan forces in about 2 1/2 years. But many European leaders are under economic and public pressure at home to wind down involvement sooner. Newly elected French President Francois Hollande has already said that he will withdraw French forces this year.
Pakistan’s cooperation is seen as vital for a successful NATO transition in Afghanistan. Islamabad’s decision in November to close NATO supply lines after a U.S. air strike killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers has thrown a wrench in that plan.
The White House made a major push last week to convince Pakistan to reopen the routes before the NATO summit, but a top aide to U.S. President Barack Obama said on May 19 that was unlikely. Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said Washington believes the issue will be resolved, but not in the next few days as many had speculated.
After meeting with Obama on the sidelines of the summit, Karzai thanked Americans for the help that their “taxpayer money” has given Afghanistan and said his country will soon "no longer [be] a burden” on the rest of the world.
Obama said the NATO meeting was "going to be largely devoted to ratifying and reflecting the broad consensus" that alliance members and partners have agreed to. He also said both he and Karzai know much work remains, adding that "hard days” lie ahead. But he expressed confidence that things were on the right track to ending the more-than-decade-long war in Afghanistan.
Also on the NATO summit agenda is NATO’s missile-defense plans for Europe, which Moscow claims will neutralize its own nuclear deterrent.
The future of the 28-member alliance in an increasingly complex global security landscape will also come up at the meeting. Rasmussen said leaders will discuss how to adapt to the challenges to come.
"Our summit has three key priorities," Rasmussen said, "keeping Afghanistan secure now and in the years to come; keeping NATO strong and capable in the 21st century; and keeping our global network of partners solid."
The NATO summit follows on the heels of the Group of Eight (G8) economic leaders meeting in Washington, and several leaders are attending both. The G8 group of leading industrial nations promised to promote growth alongside fiscal responsibility and insisted on the need for Greece to stay in the eurozone.
Based on reporting by RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher in Chicago, with reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters